Here we go again. The way the British and Irish States are behaving with regard to the McGuigan shooting suggests they have both decided to take down the institutions in ‘Northern Ireland’ and put the Provos – who have been on ceasefire now for nearly two decades – in the dock as fall guys. It’s like deja vu all over again!
It seemed only 6 months ago that Sinn Fein had managed to avert the fall of Stormont and agree to the social welfare cuts in a way that prevented political damage to it by signing up the Stormont House agreement in December 2014. The Dublin Government publicly implicated itself in this and was thereby disabled from criticising Sinn Fein’s acceptance of austerity as an external imposition of London, supported by Dublin.
The rest of the Stormont House deal was a kind of “keeping the show on the road” operation with nothing of substance solved but everything put up for negotiation/conflict. It included: a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition; a transfer of the business of the Parades Commission to the Assembly; the establishment of an oral history archive; a Historical Investigations Unit to deal with legacy issues; an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval to help relatives of victims to gain information confidentially; the possibility of establishing an Official Opposition (if there are any takers); a reduction of the Ministries from 12 to 9.
And then, just before the British General Election, Sinn Fein discovered that an accounting sleight of hand by the DUP had meant that full provision for future welfare was in doubt and therefore it refused to pass the agreement into law. Stalemate ensued again because the British insisted that the UK matter of welfare reform had to be connected to the specific matter of progress on ‘Northern Ireland’.
Now, in August 2015, after the shooting of two former members of the Provos in Belfast the PSNI Chief Constable, after much media provocation aimed at getting him to act as a political policeman, issued a statement claiming that the IRA still existed and had carried out one of the killings. The Chief of the Garda Siochain, Noirin O’Sullivan, has come under great pressure, according to the Sunday Times in Ireland. It claims that the Department of Justice in Dublin has “distanced itself” from her refusal to say what the Sunday Times eidently wants her to say i.e. it was the Provos that did it!
Ed Moloney has been out of the limelight after the ignominious collapse of his Boston Project. He is never one to let sleeping dogs lie in the Province and since the shooting of Mr. McGuigan he has been working things up in order to produce some sort of crisis for Sinn Fein over the incident. A number of articles have been produced challenging the British authorities to be more robust vis a vis Republicans. He just simply cannot let it go, no matter what the effect.
In response to the shootings Moloney suggested that the “Provisionals may have left the stage but not the theatre.” (IT 22.8.15) However, it was impossible for them to leave the “theatre” of ‘Northern Ireland’. Using the dramatalurgical analogy it would be more accurate to say that those who entered the stage in 1970 went quietly back to the auditorium after 1998.
Moloney wrote for the Irish Times that the Provos had not disbanded and had retained a part of their arsenal for defensive purposes against opponents, with British approval. He conceded that had made sure there had been a peaceful parting of the ways with the Republican Die-Hards, prevented the bloodletting feuds of former days.
However, despite such a functional arrangement apparently existing – which had undoubtedly contributed to peace and stability – the Provos were to be blamed, with repercussions for all. It seems that a Death Wish exists among those whose reflexes mean they can’t help themselves destroying that which was so painfully put together but which makes them feel uncomfortable.
It was apparent that with Sinn Fein’s refusal to budge on welfare reform the institutions were about to be allowed to collapse and the IRA was to be blamed. That would hopefully stop the momentum gathering in the South around the 1916 Centenary, which had shown itself in the tremendous enthusiasm that manifested among the Dublin working-class during Sinn Fein’s re-enactment of the O’Donovan Rossa funeral. The Irish Times began linking the Belfast shooting with the O’Donovan Rossa event almost immediately (Stephen Collins, ‘McGuigan killing raises questions for Rising tributes’ 22.8.15). The wind needed taking out of the Sinn Fein sails by the tried and trusted (though previously unsuccessful) method of linking them to sporadic violent events in the North which they entirely condemned and described those responsible as “criminals” – a term resisted to the death in the 1981 Hunger Strike.
This kind of activity falls into a well-established pattern well-known to the Catholic community in the North but probably forgotten about elsewhere. A decade ago in the attempts to preserve David Trimble against what Britain would describe as “the democracy” in ‘Northern Ireland’ Republicans were arrested at critical points and allegations were put into circulation by the Chief Constable. Unionists were appeased by the exclusion of Sinn Fein. And then, a few months later when the incidents had served its purpose, those who had been arrested were released without charge and without publicity from a disinterested media.
All the allegations (The Columbia Three, the Castlereagh ‘break-in’ and the Stormont espionage) which led to the collapse of the Executive and power-sharing arrangements were presented as established facts by the British State media (along with Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, at the time) despite the fact that they were not substantiated or proved. It was not important that they ever were proved – just that they provided political cover for the British Government to do the thing they wanted – saving Dave for a later date – so he might be resurrected.
All three planks justifying the British Government’s actions in October 2002 turned out to be bogus. All three were quickly and quietly forgotten without any official acknowledgement, or media mea culpas, that they were bogus. They could be quietly forgotten about because they were not actually believed by those who used them to political effect and the media in ‘Northern Ireland’ being strictly controlled showed no interest after the event.
It was somehow expected that this pattern would result in the Catholic community deserting Sinn Fein in droves as it recoiled from such dishonourable and disreputable behaviour. And it was hoped that Republicans failure to do and say certain things, which the Good Friday Agreement never required them to do in the first place would put them beyond the Pale with the media and in consequence with the electorate, which in Britain seems to be gullible in that way.
Instead, it had precisely the opposite effect on the Catholic community and ended up in severely damaging the SDLP.
The settlement Britain made in ‘Northern Ireland’ in 1998 did not work out as intended. The objective of the Agreement was to establish a harmless middle-ground Unionist Party/SDLP coalition with a marginalised Sinn Fein and DUP. That would have succeeded, after 28 years of trouble, in putting ‘Northern Ireland’ back in the box that was closed in 1921 and marked with the words: “Do not open under any circumstances.”
The ‘consociational’ principle on which the new political structures were based envisaged the establishment of a moderate political elite managing the ‘extremes’ and other activist elements of society. The Executive Ministries were initially allocated considerable independent power and the Assembly was rendered weak by placing nearly all the parties within it in government.
But after the failure of saving Trimble from the electorate something very unexpected happened. Sinn Fein and the DUP, led by Paisley, cobbled together a functional arrangement in order to work the Agreement. The ‘extremes’ began to operate it with much greater success in terms of peace and stability than was ever managed by the ‘moderate centre’ and imagined possible at all. And when Paisley gave way to Peter Robinson this functional arrangement continued for a time with the communal conflict being blunted by the ‘extremes’ where the ‘moderates’ had only sharpened it.
But things can never rest in ‘Northern Ireland’ and those who did not like the settlement – who were many and varied and not always rejectionist Unionists– as it actually was could not help themselves in setting about undermining it, and attempting to unravel it, despite knowing full well the consequences of doing so.
‘Northern Ireland’ remains what it has always been – a devolved system of communal antagonism, albeit now with a level playing field for the conflict to be fought out in the future. It was established by Westminster in the catastrophe of 1920/1 to frustrate Sinn Fein.
But Sinn Fein, having transformed things in the North, are threatening a break through in the South – something that would be a game-changer on the island.
The island is the important thing for England. The perverse abomination called ‘Northern Ireland’ was conceived in Whitehall by the cream of the British establishment as a lever on the bulk of the country, on which the 1920 Act became unimplementable after the Irish democracy stood by its verdict of the 1918 election after Black and Tan terror had been applied by Britain. It represented a way of manipulating the Irish at the Treaty negotiations to win back some of the ground lost between 1918 and 1921. And having performed that function with great success, thereafter, ‘Northern Ireland’ served to manipulate Southern Anti-Partitionism in the interests of the British State which, like Pharaoh, was letting Ireland go but not letting it go very far.
‘Northern Ireland’ was made to keep Dublin on its best behaviour. And it has succeeded greatly. It can be brought into play within the part of the island Britain lost and thereafter needed to influence. It succeeds as much today as it did back in 1922.
The Centenary of 1916 has frightened the Bejasus out of Dublin and Britain is aware of it. So it seems that the Good Friday institutions are about to be sacrificed in order to keep Sinn Fein down, whilst the 1916 spectre is around. That is what the manufactured controversy over the McGuigan shooting is all about.
The institutions can always be brought back after the crisis is over. Then the charade can start over – Deja vu, all over again!